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When Jami Jackson-Cole tested positive for COVID-19—for the second time—just days after school started last month, she wasn’t mad at her students, or their families, or the district she works for. She was, however, furious at Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt and her state Legislature, which banned school boards from implementing mask mandates earlier this year.
“I am angry that I could have lost my life,” the 50-year-old fifth-grade math teacher from Duncan, Oklahoma, told VICE News. “I’m angry I could have given it to my husband, or my children. I don’t know if I want to teach in this state anymore.”
Cole suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, which makes her immune system weaker and more susceptible to an illness like COVID, and her husband has leukemia as well. After being hospitalized last fall due to COVID complications, Cole was fully vaccinated earlier this year.
So when she felt exhausted a few days after a “Meet your teacher” night, she didn’t think much of it. The following morning, however, she woke up with what she described as the worst headache she’s ever had. Then, she remembered some students had come to the event with adults who weren’t their parents—because their own had tested positive for COVID.
A few days later, Cole, too, tested positive. Soon after, her symptoms, which included heart palpitations and shortness of breath, worsened to the point that she drove an hour for an injection of monoclonal antibodies, a treatment which, if used early on in symptomatic COVID-19 patients, has proven remarkably effective at keeping people out of the hospital.
When asked if she thinks she contracted COVID at her school, Cole didn’t hesitate. “100 percent,” she said. And she’s not the only one—more than 2 percent of both students and staff in Duncan Public Schools were absent from class due to COVID on Sept. 2, according to her district’s public reporting totals.
“I’m angry I could have given it to my husband, or my children. I don’t know if I want to teach in this state anymore.”
Across the country, more than 300 active teachers and school personnel have died due to complications of COVID-19 during the pandemic, according to EdWeek. And the start of school coinciding with the surge of the highly contagious Delta variant is only increasing the threat: Last month, two teachers in the same junior high social studies department in Texas died just four days apart, forcing a weeklong shutdown of the district’s schools. In Miami-Dade County, 13 school staff members have died since mid-August, the local teachers’ union told CNN Tuesday.
But politicians, especially in red states, have turned wearing masks—a scientifically proven way to reduce the risk of transmission—into a game of political football, even as they accelerate the push toward normalcy by allowing schools and businesses to reopen.
Governors in Texas and Florida have not only refused to mandate masks, they’ve banned local governments, including school districts, from creating mandates of their own and threatened the ones that disobey. In Oklahoma, the Legislature passed SB 658, a law that simultaneously banned vaccine requirements and mask mandates without an emergency declaration from the governor.
And when conservatives dominate not just the executive branch but also the legislative and judicial branches, teachers don’t have much power over policies that could save lives.
“I feel like we, as teachers in this state, are disposable,” Cole said. “[Stitt] doesn’t care, and I think that’s obvious.”
Teachers aren’t just worried about themselves, either: Delta appears to be more dangerous to children, and pediatric ICUs around the country are filling up. At the end of last month, 13-year-old Clarence Johnson III of Oklahoma City passed away after a battle with COVID-19. Just weeks before, Oklahoma City Schools had implemented a mask mandate in defiance of the governor, but the state’s attorney general said he would sue any districts that required masks.
On Sept. 1, an Oklahoma district court judge ruled that enforcement of the ban against mask mandates should be temporarily put on hold, but that schools must provide parents with the ability to opt out of the mandate. In a tweet, Stitt called the ruling “a victory for parental choice, personal responsibility and the rule of law.”
The war against mask mandates
It’s unknown just how many teachers and students across the U.S. have already tested positive during this school year, but the Washington Post reported in August that more than 10,000 students and faculty in 14 different states were already in quarantine. In Broward County, Florida—one of a minority of districts around the country to maintain its own COVID-19 dashboard—637 students and 279 students had already tested positive as of Sept. 3, and more than 4,000 students have already been forced into quarantine, according to Broward Teachers Union president Anna Fusco. Three employees died from COVID-19 in a single 24-hour period in August.
Florida has seen a record number of hospitalizations during the most recent COVID-19 surge, and Fusco told VICE News that she’s noticed more and more businesses re-enforcing mask requirements on their own after a long period of not doing that.
“People in general are taking COVID serious still,” Fusco said. “Except for our governor, who seems to think it’s a joke.”
Like Stitt in Oklahoma, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has taken a hard line against local mask (and vaccine) mandates in his state. When some Florida school districts took steps to mandate masks in defiance of his executive order banning them, DeSantis threatened to cut off their funding—even though the CDC had already modified its guidance to say vaccinated people should wear masks in areas of high transmission. In late August, a Florida judge ruled that DeSantis’ ban on mandates was unconstitutional; DeSantis’s Department of Education told NBC News that the decision “immensely disappointing” and promised to appeal.
Nick Mrozowski, 36, teaches physical education at an elementary school in Sebring, Florida. He’s also the president of the Highland County Education Association and a former Democratic candidate for the Florida House of Representatives. He and his wife, a fourth-grade teacher, got their second shots of the Pfizer vaccine in May.
Now in his sixth year of teaching, Mrozowski went back to school on Aug. 10. On the night of August 24, Mrozowski said he began to feel fatigued and clocked a fever of 100.7. The next day, he tested negative with a rapid test, but then his wife lost her sense of taste. On Thursday, after finally getting a PCR test, Mrozowski tested positive.
Mrozowski teaches his classes outside because his school doesn’t have a gym. But he estimated that roughly a third of students and staff at his wife’s school wear masks, and where he teaches, it’s as little as 10-15 percent. And he sees all of the school’s students, some as young as 5 or 6.
“I see every single student three times a week,” Mrozowski told VICE News. “I teach kindergarten. They’re very handsy, very in your face—which is fine, that’s what they are.”
Mrozowski said he knows that either he or his wife brought COVID home from school. Though some Florida school districts have fought DeSantis’ order, Mrozowski teaches in a deeply conservative county that went for former President Donald Trump by 34 points in 2020. So masks weren’t even a requirement last year, just “strongly urged,” he said.
Mrozowski’s worst symptoms, he said, were fatigue, chills, and COVID “fog,” which he described as similar to short-term memory loss. But he credits the vaccine for not feeling even worse; he’s seen former colleagues die and friends and family fight for their lives in the hospital.
“Other people that have been breakthroughs, all of them said the same thing: You’re gonna have a bad time, but not as bad as unvaccinated people,” Mrozowski said.
Just last week, a bus driver in Highland County, Florida, lost his battle with COVID-19, the Highland News-Sun reported. When asked by the paper Sunday if the school district was considering a mask mandate, deputy superintendent Andrew Lethbridge said that they’re “not currently looking at making masks mandatory,” and that there had “not been any internal conversation that we are heading in that direction.”
The real problem, Mrozowski said, is DeSantis’ resistance to mask mandates.
“We’re playing this game of, ‘Can we mandate it?’ And smaller counties like us, we can’t compete with our funding being cut or even delayed,” said Mrozowski, acknowledging President Joe Biden’s comments last month that he would help fund counties DeSantis went after for implementing mask requirements.
It’s worth noting that teachers are not a unified voice on the issue. In early September, after Oklahoma City Public Schools began requiring masks, five teachers were put on paid leave for refusing to wear masks at school; they then sued the district.
“I’m getting members calling me up and telling me how they’re really afraid of what’s going on, and on the other side of things, I have members that say, ‘I don’t want to get the vaccine; it’s my choice,’” Mrozowski said.
In late August, the Department of Education announced it was opening civil rights investigations into Oklahoma and four other states that have banned mask mandates, on the basis that the ban was discriminatory against students with disabilities and underlying medical conditions.
"It’s simply unacceptable that state leaders are putting politics over the health and education of the students they took an oath to serve,” Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a statement. “The Department will fight to protect every student’s right to access in-person learning safely and the rights of local educators to put in place policies that allow all students to return to the classroom full-time in-person safely this fall.”
When Oklahoma’s anti-mask mandate law was first passed, cases were way down in the state and much of the rest of the country. So Aaron Baker, a 44-year-old social studies teacher in northwest Oklahoma City, saw the new law as a “symbolic statement.” The Putnam City Schools teacher was also fully vaccinated in March, and over the summer his family had slowly widened their quarantine bubble.
But as case numbers began to worsen, Baker began to worry. He estimated that during the first few weeks of school, roughly 30 percent of faculty and students were masking. “It became clear to me that without the mandate we wouldn’t get the kind of cooperation and encouragement we need in school and it would put all of us in a dangerous situation,” he said.
“It’s simply unacceptable that state leaders are putting politics over the health and education of the students they took an oath to serve.”
On the Friday of the first full week of school, Baker began to cough and feel sluggish. The next day, he got a rapid test, which came back positive.
“It was quite a bit of shock, and there were times over the next 24-48 hours where I questioned the whole scene, replaying the moment when the nurse practitioner said I was positive,” he said. “I was dealing with trusting my own body and feeling like I was potentially paranoid about the political situation, like my body was creating the symptoms.”
But it was real, and over the coming days, Baker displayed many of the classic symptoms of COVID-19: congestion, headaches, and the loss of appetite, smell, and taste.
“My wife bought some honey roasted almonds, and I thought they weren’t very flavorful,” he recalled. “And then I realized I’d been eating salt and vinegar almonds.”
Baker was forced to use his personal sick leave to cover his absence. Because he’s been teaching for a decade and has rarely used personal sick time, he had plenty of days; if he’d been a first or second year teacher, however, that would have been a different story.
“It’s not equitable, in terms of how long someone’s been teaching, if they’re facing a crisis like this,” Baker said.
But even for teachers who’ve been in the profession for a long time and can afford to take off, there’s pressure to return—even if that pressure is internalized guilt about taking off, especially in a place like rural Oklahoma and at a time like this, where substitute teachers are hard to find. Cole, who returned to school after her quarantine period ended, said that the shortage of substitutes has resulted in her district pulling aides from other schools to fill in.
“I felt guilty, so I pushed my body way too hard,” she said. “As soon as I get home from work, I get in and go to bed. I’m now on a cane because my joints have swollen.”
“But, you know, who’s going to watch the kids?” she added. “It comes to that point.”
Correction 9/8: This article has been updated to reflect the correct number of employees that died from COVID-19 during a 24-hour period in Broward County Public Schools.